Millions of years ago, some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, volcanic activity created the Galapagos Islands.  There are 13 major islands and dozens of smaller islets.  On these islands the wind and sea brought seeds which settled and grew.  Finally, an unusual collection of birds and animals flew, swam, or floated to the islands.  Scientists claimed 47% of the plants grew nowhere else and 97% of the reptiles were found no place else on earth. 

It is one thing to read about the islands but it is a totally different experience to actually explore them.  It’s possible to take a variety of cruises on a wide range of boats.  The word “cruise” brings to mind images of luxury, wealth and comfort.  That wasn’t my boat.  Nope, I didn’t have any of that.  But, the sites to behold were priceless.

The islands were close enough to have some similarities but far enough apart to have unique differences.  It was those difference that inspired Charles Darwin.  Some of my favorite experiences were snorkeling.  In the water sea lions danced their underwater ballet on all sides of me.  They were as curious about me as I was about them.  They even brushed across my legs.  Nobody told them they couldn’t touch the humans, but every visitor knew they were not supposed to touch the animals.           
There were lots of other neat things to see snorkeling besides the sea lions including coral, so many colorful fish, sea urchins, manta rays, turtles, and star fish in a variety of colors.  There were also sharks.  Did I say sharks?  Did I say I swam in shark infested waters?  There were sharks!

Sharks lingered outside of Devil's Crown.  It was the top of a volcano that partly stuck out of the water.  I snorkeled inside the crown taking in all the coral, fish, and starfish.  I didn't leave the circle because outside the crater were sharks.  I didn’t know why the sharks didn’t enter the crown.  I was pleased that they didn’t.  I mean, really, who wants to swim with sharks?          
Santiago Island had huge lava tubes, tunnels formed when lava flowed.  The outside of the lava cooled faster than the inside.  As the insides continued to flow, tunnels formed.  Who knew?  Anyway, part of the tunnel caved in and part hadn't. These tunnels filled with water.  I went snorkeling and swam down under the roof of the tunnel and come up at another hole.  It was grand! 
My guide and I were the only ones wanting to snorkel.  She'd point to things under water and then tell me what it was when we surfaced.  Once she asked if I'd like to see a shark.  Sure!  She said to look below me.  There, fifteen feet below me, were two seven foot long white-tip sharks.  There had never been any shark accidents in the Galapagos Island and I didn't want to be the first.   I knew how unlucky I could be at times.  Truth be told, there was no truth to that statement about shark attacks that my guide said with a straight face.  My friends as the Charles Darwin Foundation said there just weren’t many attacks.  So, more true be told, I was a little nervous.  Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark shadow pass by me.  I screamed -- which wasn't easy to do under water -- but I screamed anyway.

It was a sea lion. 
The most famous landmark in the Galapagos Islands is Pinnacle Rock, that rises to a point 360 feet about the sea.  I waded out in ankle - deep water to get a closer look at the little sharks swimming right along the shore.  Sharks didn’t stop me from snorkeling around Pinnacle Rock and behind it.  I wanted to see the Galapagos penguins that lived there.  They were the second smallest penguins in the world.  A full grown adult was about 12 inches tall. 
As I snorkeled the shy penguins swam past me.  Once I decided to rest on a rock and watch some on the cliff's edge.  It wasn't the best idea because this rock was claimed by a male sea lion.  He hollered and circled around me.  You don’t ever want 700 pounds of sea lion mad at you.  I decided I better go before he charged towards me.  Too late!  As I looked below me, I saw this sea lion swim RIGHT UNDER me.  RIGHT UNDER the entire length of my body!  After getting out to a safe distance, I turned around to look at that rock.  The sea lion wasn’t even on it.  But, there on the very rock where I had been sitting, was a penguin!

I was so mad at that sea lion.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, but it took me 25 years to get back to Bartolome Island and its penguins! 

I remembered the penguins as very shy.  Perhaps the flood of tourists with snorkel gear over the years had one good side effect.  The penguins seemed very used to visitors.  As I snorkeled around Pinnacle Rock, I spotted a couple on the shore.  I decided to see how close I could get by water.  As quietly as possible, I reached the very rock where they preened themselves.  I stood by the rock (well, I tried to but it was difficult to fight the ebb and flow of the water) for ten minutes.  That process was made even more difficult with bulky fins on my feet and volcanic rock that sliced away at grasping fingers.  Observing was easier when I moved closer and sat by the rock.  Since the two preeners were not in the least bit concerned about my presence, I next moved on to the very rock for an even closer look.  They were within petting distance (which I wouldn’t consider doing).  I sat there with them for a magical ten minutes.  Finally, one of them slipped into the water and was soon followed by the other.  It was time for me to head back around the Pinnacle.

Copyright 2011 and 2012 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.